Physical Exercise as Spiritual Practice

Dionysian physical activity

My most standard form of physical activity is a weekly exercise group that I lead for students at the university where I work. Our routines consist of various combinations of high-intensity calisthenics – running stairs, Army crawls, pushups, and lots and lots of burpees. In that sense this is not a spiritual experience of quieting oneself or being meditative. The word that comes to mind for the experience in our sessions is what Nietzsche would call Dionysian – not in the stereotyped sense of being frenzied or self-destructive, but an embrace of life that is at once a celebration of, and a recognition of the fragility of, health and strength. I know I can’t do this kind of physical activity forever, but while I can, the sense of camaraderie our group has built is both a wonderful foot in the door to doing ministry and a blessing on its own. Sharing the ordeal of a workout that pushes us all to dig deep can build community in powerful ways, even without making explicitly theological connections.

I am uncomfortable with visions of sacramentality that make the physical world instrumentally good, that is, valuable only as it points beyond itself. Ideas that physical training is only useful insofar as it trains us for the coming of Christ suggest that the body does not really matter so much on its own terms, which seems to me to reinscribe the old dualisms we have worked so hard to undo. The other side of Nietzsche’s use of the term Dionysian is his comparison of Dionysus with the Crucified as symbols, respectively affirming or negating life in its tragic aspect. I mean this not to say that Christianity is inevitably life-denying or dualistic or nihilistic, but we all know Christians who run away from life in its temporality, its contingency, its tendency toward old age and sickness and weakness and other kinds of fallibility. This “residue of eternity” can make temporal things seem trivial because they don’t last, like a creeping Monophysitism that washes out our quotidian lives in favor of the part that we think lasts forever. This body will not last forever – it won’t even stay young for that much longer – but I (try to) affirm it in its value apart from whatever it points to, apart from whatever benefits my training might entail for eternity.

Patrick Cousins
Campus Ministry
Saint Louis University

The Lord is my Refuge... (Psalm 91)

 I have suffered from obesity since my early childhood, and I can count the number of times in my adult life that I have weighed less than 300 pounds on one hand.  I have suffered from morbid obesity for much of the past twenty years, usually weighing anywhere from 350 to 400 pounds (when I could even find a scale that could measure my girth).  Exercise has always been painful for me and sporadic at best.   I could not walk a mile without experiencing great pain in my back and hips. 

On October 27, 2012, with my weight ballooning back up to 320 pounds, and my blood sugar levels rising to 350, I made a pilgrimage to the Venerable Solanus Casey Center in Detroit, Michigan.  Casey was a Capuchin friar known for his simple piety, and numerous acts of healing.  Many of these miraculous accounts occurred after Casey’s death (1957), and continue to this day.   By the end of that October afternoon, I was so moved by Casey’s witness that I left an intention on his tomb, asking not only to be healed of my many afflictions, but to one day be cured. 

The changes would not begin in my life until a few months later.  In January of 2013, something miraculous began to occur, in that I was able to find the strength to lose an average of 15 pounds a month.  By July, I had lost nearly 90 pounds, and my A1C had dropped to a normal level of 5.2%.  Most of my preventative medications were removed, as I had disciplined myself to no longer be a slave to unhealthy carbohydrates.  I have also been able to discipline myself to adopt physical exercise as spiritual practice.  By March of this year, I was able to undertake a rigorous walking program that helped improve my health significantly.  Inspired by the movie “The Way,” I began by walking 2 miles a day.  By July, I had conditioned my body to walk 6 miles a day, 6 times per week.  As I walked I reflected upon the events of my life, questioning God why I was able to survive from Diabetes while my brother was taken at such an early age.  Perhaps I am meant to serve as an inspiration to others, so that they too may come to the realization that with faith in God, any adversity can be overcome.  For this great gift of instrumentality, I can only “Thank God ahead of time.”
Robert P. Russo
Lourdes University

Holy Goals for Body and Soul

"I have been a bishop since 2003 and a priest since 1978. But I have been playing hockey since the early 1960s." (p. ix)."I encounter holiness while training for and running in marathons (yes, I also run marathons – eighteen of them since 1995). I encounter holiness when doing a workout at the health club. Suffice to say, holiness can be encountered (and practiced) just about anywhere." (p. x).
"I don’t ever expect to “win” a marathon in terms of being the first runner to cross the finish line. I run marathons, not to win, but rather I am competing with myself, and victory comes in achieving my goal." (p. 41-42).
"As I work through my speed huffing and puffing, straining my muscles, and testing my willpower to pick up the pace, it certainly seems to me that people on the track passing me by do so with ease. Not so! Many athletic activities require fortitude, a virtue that gives us strength to face the challenges of life." (p. 57).
"In my own life, I have been ordained a priest and a bishop, passed the bar exam, earned a doctoral degree in canon law, completed numerous marathons, and faced more than my share of speeding pucks as a goalie. Neverhtless, it might surprise some people to learn that I continue to struggle with doubts every time I face a new challenge. Ironically, I view overcoming doubts as a key to achieving any accomplishment." ( p. 76).
“We are not in our own power, but in the power of God.” St. Perpetua." (p. 145) From: Holy Goals for Body and Soul (Ave Maria Press, 2013)

Thomas John Paprocki
bishop of Springfield, IL



During the cerebral focus of my doctoral studies, I recognized the need for increasing attention to my whole, more integrated self. While my work often extended my cognitive, affective and spiritual capacities to their maximum, more incarnated aspects of my embodied self remained in a bracketed lower position. I noted how myriad theories of Christian spiritual formation suggest the need for ongoing development of the whole person, but a fully integrative orientation to the multiple dimensions of human life as spiritual practice--capable of generating personal transformation--remain significantly underdeveloped as means of achieving the transformative, ongoing metanoia, or conversion, so called for in Christian scripture, tradition, and experience.

To address this personally, I determined to invest a year in a focused regimen of strength training. As a new practice, this involved scheduling, financing and fitting in necessary interaction with a personal trainer to guide me along a very unfamiliar path. I found prolonged scholarship, ministry, and teaching had left me significantly under conditioned, but very quickly saw diminutive but measurable physical progress. Encouraged and even exhilarated by this promise for increased health, fitness and overall well-being, I also discerned that adding this physical module to the already rich world of my study and writing came with a measurable trade-off. I found my training days yielded little intellectual progress! I felt distracted and unable to focus. I knew the research, and had studied the benefits of multidisciplinary cross-training, so kept at it with hopes I would equilibrate to a more balanced training day.

In a certain sense, the interconnected and dynamic ability to transfer growth in one area—cognitive, physical, emotional, spiritual and beyond—acted much like the traditional understanding of the philosophical chain of virtue, wherein the moral virtues, informed and empowered by the theological virtues, are capable of transforming the whole person through their distinct yet unitive actions. To more skillfully embody this unitive whole in its varied dimensions, I am experimenting this year with a paradox. To strengthen the whole, I am more willing to listen to the distinct particular. Each link in my ever developing chain deserves a unique craftsmanship, an individual space where it finds its greatest strength. As I return to a modicum of now independent physical training, I will listen to what my embodied self is actually saying. As I have attuned myself so earnestly to my interior mandate to “be still and know,” I will likewise listen to its companioning wisdom, “get moving and be whole.”

Neville Ann Kelly
Mount Marty College, Yankton, SD


I've been thinking about the reflection question posed for us: Catholics fast a few times a year. What do you get out of it? Is it a token practice to be dropped, or an invitation for a more general practice? I understand and experience fasting as a more general practice. When I first read the question in light of the general topic of exercise, I wasn't sure how to think about it, since fasting is not meant as some kind of diet, like a diet you might pair with an exercise program. Perhaps there are some parallels though.
- Like exercise, I don't think you can only fast a few times a year out of obligation or in a lackluster way, and expect it to be a meaningful practice.
- Like exercise, fasting is hard, and I can always find a lot of excuses not to do it.
- As exercise is paired with other practices (eating healthy, getting good rest and sleep, etc.), fasting is ideally connected with other practices (prayer, almsgiving, abstinence, the 'duty of delight' which Dorothy Day spoke of, etc.).
- Like exercise with other people, it can be easier or at least less hard to fast if you know that other Christians all over the world are fasting at the same time.
= Like exercise, fasting can be less hard if you keep your goal in mind: perhaps freeing up time for prayer, strengthening our discipline, putting our passions in proper order, spending time with Jesus who fasted, remembering all those who go without).
I am thankful for the invitation to think about fasting in a different way, especially given its ongoing importance as a spiritual practice in the Church. After all, Lent is not that far away, and the US Bishops continue to invite Catholics to fast on Fridays with an eye towards building up a culture of life.

Marc Tumeinski <>
Anna Maria College, Paxton, MA


Anyone who has tried fasting in "ordinary" time (not prescribed) will find that the practice IS indeed ordinary. We have to get over the dichotomous Greek approach to our humanness. Fasting, exercise, movements of the limbs, etc.– all are parts of our whole being as persons. They are means to wholeness, not to suppression of who we are. As Americans we generally are enticed to fill our bodies with junk and our minds with noise, as we – lump-like – watch another ad for pizza. As St. Ignatius found during his recuperation from the leg wound, much of what we put into ourselves neither satisfies nor lasts.

My children tell me about the euphoric high that comes from running. Certainly it's partly chemical, but it gives a peace that potato chips cannot. The Dominicans have long practiced postures with their public and private prayer: the body prays along with the mind and voice. Scrubbing a kitchen floor on hands and knees is a practice of prayer (if one isn't too old to get back up afterward!). Deprivation of eating what we ordinarily do (often more than we need to sustain and function), gives us more than a trimmer middle.

Marc's comments about the communal aspects of fasting and other practices are on target. Humanness is not a singular achievement: how many Twinkies can I reject; how fast can I get my heart rate on my run (check out the FitBit)? Rather, not only are disciplinary practices efficacious for our own health and well-being and easier if others do them, too (ah, those gyms and Jenny Craig diets); they put us in touch with the real and involuntary suffering of our brothers and sisters. When we crave a Big Mac or that latte and our stomachs cry out in disbelief, we are in touch with those who cannot afford a burger or a latte. We touch in a small way those who lie listless from hunger in countries we will never see or in the streets of our prosperous cities. When we pray we not only put ourselves in the presence of God but into the presence of God made human. Last week at Sunday Mass the celebrant quoted Augustine's admonition as he gave communion, “Receive who you are. Become what you have received.” Practices of piety, fasting, etc. open us. Like the vulnerably-spread arms of Jesus on the cross, they receive not only the pain of material bodies but the promise of eternal embrace in the arms of the person who loved us first.

Dolores Christie
University Heights, OH


Exercise is one of the ways I enter into prayer and a sense of God’s presence. Over the years prayer has helped me know myself, others, my place in the world, and be consciously aware of God in my life. Not all exercise does this. In fact some exercise will cost me all of this by leading me to obsess with faults in myself and in my daily life – resentments I can do without, resentments which bring out the worst in me. Let me explain.
Exercise is one way for me to become centered – “mindful” in today’s lingo. Exercise takes me away for my distractions, my cares by centering me one them. How?
When I swim laps, run, cross-country ski, hike, walk the labyrinth, my immediate concerns with work, appealing to a congregation, taking care of an ailing person get set aside by thIS activity. In the mindlessness of this activity and its peacefulness, random thoughts come to mind – a joke I didn’t laugh at that now hits me, taking my vehicle in for an overdue service, attending to a friend in need, something I enjoyed but had forgotten. I set these aside to consider when my exercise is done and enjoy my time away from them. Very often I have a sense of presence in this time.
Next comes the part where I go back ‘on line’, to my work and study and daily concerns that my exercise period disconnected. I journal my distractions, and, from time to time, review them for recurrences and salient issues I have forgotten. I use the patterns in these random thoughts to focus on areas in my life that need attention to cultivate or exclude. Salient items like forgetting to say thank you to someone or tend to a garden problem, I simply take care of.
I will post material on examining consciousness (mindfuleness) on my long dormant website ( in the near future.
When I was young in the life of the spirit I examined my distractions in the light of comfort / discomfort and whether or not they lead me to a sense of God’s presence. When I got a handle on seeking God’s presence I used exercise to enter there and remain with it.
Exercise gives me other benefits – reduces sleep time, makes me more alert, reduces my carelessness, keeps me flexible in mind and body. Its help for prayer is one I have come to treasure. I also recommend it for those I direct in prayer. Many find it helpful.
C.T. Rupert sj
LaStorta Jesuit Community
Pickering, ON, Canada


One of the saddest encounters I had with a person seeking help with prayer was someone who had sat for two years “centering”. She desperately complained that she breathed, she focused, she let go of all negative emotions and ideas, and she could not find God at her center. I told her when I seek the Lord, I bring all those things with me in prayer and complain to Him about them, and then we talk. To my mind, the greatest deception is that union with God is a matter for technique.
That said, is exercise a way to be healthy and so a better Christian? Absolutely. Is God amidst the swim lanes? No doubt. Especially for us first-worlders who don't experience normal physical activity as part of our day. But, we have been deeply influenced by both the eastern yoking of the divine, as well as Jansenism, and it seems to me these can feed our will to perfection and artificiality rather than open our days to God in our Christian walk…or run, if you will.

Clare McGrath-Merkle OCDS
University of Augsburg, Germany


I'm one who exercises sporadically. This time of year is one of those "on" times as it is dark on my way to work and dark when I get home, so my favorite activities outdoors are not possible on a regular basis. So, I head to my basement where the weight bench, Body Blade, rowing machine, trampoline, bands and free weights are just waiting to be used. As I workout, I pay attention to my abilities and inabilities, to the way my muscles react to what I am doing, to the way my joints are involved in each exercise, to the way the cartilage in my left knee screams to be repaired. I pay attention to my body and marvel at the creation it is and continues to become. I marvel at the way everything works together and pay attention to my breath as it quickens and slows depending on my activity. Upon completion, I thank God for what I am capable of both physically and mentally and am happy to be taking care of this "temple" that has been entrusted to me. Abusing ourselves through sloth and gluttony is like thumbing our nose at our Creator. Our "self" is the most sacred thing we have and it should be treated like the precious gift that it is.

During the times that I am able to exercise in the outdoors, I recognize a whole different level of creation, that of nature: animals, plants, rocks, trees. As I garden or weed or spread mulch or till in compost, I am conscious of God all around me and marvel at the way the soil and some very small seeds bring forth beauty and sustenance in flowers and vegetables. I am constantly amazed at the 100+ year old cottonwood tree that majestically stands as a sign of resilience against the storms of life. When I walk the neighboring side roads, farm fields and woods, and let my dogs run free to herd and hunt, I am reminded of God's gift of nature that we are to nurture and care for - helping them produce and yield and be all they can be. All of creation sings in its own way and praises the Maker of it all.
Judy Brown
Faith Formation Director
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish
Green Bay, WI

I am a kind of exercise lover/freak. Almost every morning finds me either running, swimming, or doing yoga. As a child I took lessons in dance and acrobatics. In high school I was on the basketball team and I remember loving it. Then I joined the convent and did a lot of meditating but no exercise except to walk around the garden after supper. It was a time of bodily suppression - hiding behind the habit. But come the late 60s and 70s, my need for physical exercise returned.

I would like to be able to say that during exercise, I think about my life, God, and the universe. Not true. I have one thing of which I am deathly afraid - I do not want to be bored. Exercise can be boring, running the same path, doing the same exercises. And so I listen to the radio while doing yoga and running. While swimming I usually plan my day. Even during morning coffee I sit out on the porch or in a chair by the window listening to NPR. As an academic, I am focused on learning and research, I want to use every minute of my day to keep up with the latest news both in the world and in my field of study. This takes total concentration. Even in quiet times, I'm thinking about the book I'm reading or the paper I'm writing.

Distractions abound, however, and sometimes an hour goes by with the radio on but I haven't heard it. I'm sure that my thoughts during these times are deep and meaningful and I'm sure that they have an effect on my life going forward, even though I can't recount them.

But even though I don't think about God or spiritual thoughts, exercise fills me with energy. I'm open, ready to face the day. The spirit is awake. All of this makes me think that physical exercise is somehow related to spirituality. It leaves me with a feeling of wholeness and general well-being. I'm doing something right and good. My spirit is lifted.

Winifred Whelan
1415 W. Rascher
Chicago IL 60640